1955: I turn sixteen
A Man Who Never Went to War
An officer might be compelled to put his knee on a suspect’s neck during a struggle, Heiskell said. However, he said he cannot imagine why Floyd was held face-down on the ground for minutes…
- “George Floyd death: Experts say knee-to-neck restraint is dangerous…” USA Today, May, 2020
There was not one “Negro” among the 500 students at Holton High, and no teacher who ever mentioned Civil Rights in class, but there were several pretty girls with Mediterranean blood who were sometimes called “jungle bunnies,” including my crush, Nita.
She was in my thoughts as we drove across country that summer in the Camp trucks. How much was my desire for her flamed by fire of the forbidden? How close in those Camp trucks did we come to the place where a boy, two years younger than me, was said to have flirted with a white woman, then to be tortured and lynched that same August.
From Chicago to Mississippi, Emmett Till traveled on railroad tracks our Camp trucks would have rumbled over or under. His mutilated body in a casket would have traveled back north on the same tracks. I remember our Camp trucks rumbling into the parking lot of a slaughterhouse and meat packing plant. The slaughtering of the hogs was of great interest, done, we were told, with little injury or pain in the moment of death. It was arranged so we didn’t even see the blood. Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket that America would see the blood. Not that many of us kids back in Massachusetts would have seen the image. Neither my teachers nor parents showed it to me.
That fall, the themes of my adolescence continue telling my story. I’m again elected class president and again don’t tell my mother. My friends continue to call me Fuzzy for the child’s hair still everywhere upon me. I still avoid the showers, ashamed of my immaturity and shape. And though I come into my own as an athlete in basketball, my Cousin Bob continues to dwarf me in physical prowess and acclaim. He stars in the big Thanksgiving football game. The crowd cheers:
“Give ’em the axe, the axe, the axe!”
“Right in the neck, the neck, the neck!”
Bob scores the winning touchdown. I cheer, hiding my deep envy deep down.
Off the football field, I find other ways to feel strength and belonging among young men. I am one of a group of eight boys called the “Great Eight.” Some of us identify as athletes, some as scholars, and one is a huge fan of Elvis Presley, dressing the part and driving us around in his customized ’48 Ford.
The boy we call Figgy works the radio and drums his hands on the dashboard. We follow his lead improvising lyrics to popular songs: “I found my thrill, on Blueberry Hill. On Blueberry Hill, where I fucked you.”
All over town, the parents of the girls were horrified at the thought of Figgy getting his hands on their daughters. He was a crude handsome hybrid of James Dean, Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker. He hung out in the “Rat Hole,” a basement dive frequented by older guys, smokers, drinkers, drops-outs. His dick was big. He told lewd jokes: One night this guy was parking with his girlfriend up on Cherry Hill. When the police car pulled up, and the officer went over with his light and asked the guy, “what are you doing here?” “We’re necking,” the kid said. The officer replied, “then you better put your neck back in your pants and get out of here.”
I’d never yet necked with any girl. I was straight as an arrow, good at school, Coach’s son and camp counselor. But I liked Figgy’s jokes, his deviance and daring. I told the jokes myself, talked tits and dicks and clits just like the other guys, but quieter. This is one of the reasons I kept getting elected as class president. The girls thought I was respectable, and the guys knew me as dirty as the rest.
In Figgy’s car, we drive past girls on the corner. He shouts, “Hey, dogs, want my bone?!”
I tease from the back, “You want the little fat one, don’t ya, Figgy?”
“Fuzzy, if they’re old enough to bleed, they’re old enough to butcher!”
Read more of A Man Who Never Went to War: 1956: I turn seventeen